Michel Laprise and Chantal Tremblay
Cirque du Soleil
Royal Albert Hall

Clara (Kazuha Ikeda), Microcosmos (Mathieu Hubener) and Nico (Nicolas Baixas) Credit: Cirque du Soleil
Rola Bola (James Gonzalez) Credit: Cirque du Soleil
Upside Down World / Handbalancing (Andril Bondarenko) Credit: Cirque du Soleil
Contortion (Ayagma Isybenova, Baasansuren Enkbaatar, Bayarma Parry and Imin Tsydenambaeva Credit: Cirque du Soleil

Kurios, getting its European première at the Royal Albert Hall, set out to be a steampunk dream, a fin de siècle fantasy.

First seen in Canada in 2014, it is inspired by renaissance cabinets of curiosities and Jules Verne, framing its circus acts in a world of mad white-coated scientists and their creations, retorts and robots, big-horned phonographs and glass domes flickering with light, in which Antonio Moreno’s Seeker finds Nico (Nicolas Baixas), a man with an accordion-like body, Klara (Kazuha Ikeda), whose hooped skirt tunes in to alpha waves, and Mr Microcosmos (Mathieu Hubener) with a bulging metal belly in which lives minute Mini Lili (Rima Hadchiti. There will be steam trains and flying machines, while at the sides, piled curiosities create towers to provide perches for a singer and instrumentalists.

Is there a story? If so, it is a very loose one, framing the circus acts as discoveries, more in the mind of the makers than on display here. However, the wild and weird theme of Stéphane Roy’s props and setting is carried through in Philippe Guillotel’s costumes to make the performers part of this world along with the choreography of Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and a team of specialist acrobatics choreographers.

After the Seeker has set things going, the company and its musicians crowd onto the stage from which juggler Louise-Philippe Jodoin emerges. Throwing clubs and what look like hands into the air, while accompanying xylophone players toss their sticks, there is nothing unusual until he suddenly ascends into the air continuing juggling. Just as this act emerged from the crowd, new arrivals and the setting up of apparatus is incorporated in a swirl of company action moving things forward, and the watchers are grouped to focus attention on each act.

The succession of performers that follow mainly display the usual circus skills, but there are surprises. In a Russian Cradle, act Ekaterina Evdokimova is swung in the air by arms or by legs and then caught by Volodymmyr Klavdich (a Russian / Ukrainian sharing of trust which the real world should learn from). Anne Weissbecker rides a bike that takes off into the air where, high above, she drapes herself around its frame and hangs perilously from various elements of it. Arriving on a giant hand, a team of contortionists move with grace and elegance that continues despite the extreme shapes they are making. Rola Bola, balancing on a column of alternating rolling cylinders and flat planks, is difficult enough but James Gonzalez does it on a swinging platform.

Very different is Facundo Giminez’s Invisible Circus, in which he becomes ringmaster of a miniature circus; the tightrope tension moves along, the trapezes swing, the tenter board tips and the lion roars, but animal and acrobats stay invisible. It is certainly a curiosity, though it lacks the thrills of other acts and doesn’t really make up for the absence of more conventional clowning. Andril Bondarenko’s handbalancing seems to follow a familiar pattern, as he leaves the table at which a séance seems to be in progress to build a delicately balanced tower of chairs to support him. But look! As he climbs higher and his balance more dangerous, there’s a mirror image above him with chairs and performer coming down towards him.

A trampoline-like acro-net spreads across the arena to start the second half and a flurry of fellows with fish tails run around, then cartoon rainclouds and men in yellow oilskins and sou’westers climb up onto the apparatus, casting them off to begin a paroxysm of leaping that takes them higher and higher to reach the rope ladder way above them.

Facundo Giminez is back. He’s in the audience, indulging in a little hair restoration on a bald pate. He seems to encourage another person to join him, but that’s a ruse; he is after the victim’s female companion. With her ensconced on a sofa on stage, he goes through a succession of animal impersonations; all delightful clowning.

Excitement returns with Roman and Vitali Tomanov twinned on aerial straps, They circle the arena as they sweep through the air on their long ropes, mirror images in matched motion, before embarking on a skilled twining and untwining of straps.

Chih-Min Tuan’s skills with yo-yos are much less dramatic but executed with finesse. Nico Baxias’s Theatre of Hands is also low-key. Fingers turn into limbs as his hands become dancing puppets, a close-up camera projecting their image onto a lantern hung overhead; a performance that he brings down into the audience, making someone’s head his stage.

A spectacular Banquine display is the last item: a large group of acrobats throwing each other through the air, often to land on shoulders and then on those shoulders. It is an act more often seen using seesaw-like teeterboards to provide the propulsion, but here they use sheer muscle power. It is impressive.

There’s a splendid band, led by bass player Nathan Spencer, and Martin Labrecque’s chiaroscuro lighting adds mystery, but, though Kurios creates a great atmosphere, any narrative is more in the minds of the producers than on stage. This manifestation of Cirque du Soleil expertise seems simpler than some previous programmes, but that increases the concentration on individual performers and their particular skills.

Over four decades, this company has continued to offer its own brand of circus. What will they bring us next year?

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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